USA Today names four to new investigative team

Memo to USA Today staff

From: Susan Weiss, David Colton and Blake Morrison

New investigative team

As many of you know, we’ve outlined ambitious plans to expand our accountability and investigative work. We’re not just saying we want to do more of it; we’re putting resources behind that commitment.

Specifically, we’re growing our investigative team from one full-time reporter to four; that unit will work closely with our five database editors, a group of accomplished investigative journalists in its own right. And we will continue to embrace the best ideas from reporters and editors across USA TODAY and give them the time and resources to execute journalism that makes a difference.

Last week, after the three of us interviewed applicants for the investigative team, we saw the depth of talent at USA TODAY and we heard the passion that continues to drive us. That made our decisions difficult but also gratifying. Today, we’re excited to announce that Alison Young, Brad Heath, Peter Eisler and Tom Frank will be joining the new investigative team. They will report to Blake Morrison, the investigations editor.

A little bit about them:

Alison, president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, has done compelling investigative stories wherever she has worked. At the Detroit Free Press, her investigation of a deadly outbreak linked to deli meats won a Gerald Loeb Award, and her coverage of abuse in nursing homes earned the Roy W. Howard Award for Public Service. As part of the Washington-based national investigative team for Knight Ridder, her work included an award-winning investigation on the dangers of off-label drug prescriptions. She wrote a weekly watchdog column at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that regularly broke news. And since joining USA TODAY last year, her watchdog work has included stories on the swine flu outbreak and the recent egg recall.

Brad is a unique talent. As senior database editor Tony DeBarros says, “Anyone who’s seen one of the applications he’s built to gather, organize and analyze data appreciates that he brings a level of sophistication to his reporting that few can match.” This year, he’s been hard at work on an investigation of misconduct by federal prosecutors — wrongdoing that has sometimes put innocent people in jail. And two years ago, he worked on a groundbreaking series about industrial air pollution around the nation’s schools. That project prompted action by the EPA and garnered a host of awards, including the Grantham Prize, the Oakes Award and a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

Pete deserves thanks from every parent whose child is eating a hamburger in a school cafeteria today. His work last year on the quality of food in the National School Lunch Program prompted sweeping safety reforms by the USDA to improve the quality of ground beef that’s served to 31 million schoolchildren. The project earned top honors from the Education Writers Association and the Association of Food Journalists, and Pete’s investigations of pollution on military bases and of fire safety at nursing homes have been honored by the National Press Club and APME, respectively. His 2008 work on roadside bombs in Iraq was a finalist for the Michael Kelly Award.

Tom has become a go-to guy for quick-hit enterprise stories off major news events, even as he has continued his aggressive coverage of aviation and homeland security. His analysis off the Sago mine disaster in 2006 showed the federal government’s lax approach to enforcing its own safety laws. Last year, a project he championed showed billions of taxpayer dollars had been spent to finance small airports that were primarily used by private airplanes. The project, based on a database Tom built, earned him the Raymond Clapper Award for Washington reporting from the Scripps Howard Foundation — and the enmity of some lawmakers who had helped the seldom-used airports get built.

Please join us in congratulating them.

Susan, David and Blake

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